A woman has told how, after decades of desperately trying to hide her beard, she is now proud of it – and even styles it with ribbons.
For years, Little Bear Schwarz would get up early to shave before her partners woke up to ensure they wouldn’t see her stubble.
Then two years ago, the 33-year-old finally learnt to embrace her facial hair after winning a beard competition.
Since then, Miss Schwarz has had people stare at her and even question whether she’s a woman – but she refuses to go back to her old life of daily shaving.
“I’ve had a taste of being myself and I can’t go back to how I was,” she said.
“I’m proud of my beard and work hard to keep it soft. I put ribbons in it and make it into spikes or shape it to look like tentacles.”
Miss Schwarz from Seattle was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) when she was 31.
She’d suffered with excessive hair growth – a major symptom of the condition – for 17 years prior.
However, as doctors couldn’t find any cysts when they ran ultrasound scans, the diagnosis wasn’t immediately obvious.
Aged 14, she started growing hair on her upper lip, chin and chest.
“I began shaving on a regular basis,” she said. “Keeping it wasn’t an option. I would shave in the shower as I didn’t want to see myself doing it.
“I was very secretive about it.”
Miss Schwarz told how she would end up with a shaving rash, which she’d cover with make-up.
She considered the option of laser treatment or waxing – but lasers were too expensive, and she didn’t want to leave her hair to grow out until it was long enough to wax.
Therefore, she always went back to shaving, even waking up early if she was staying at a boyfriend’s house to rid herself of stubble before he saw.
“I did a lot of dating,” she said. “I played a game of, ‘Let’s make sure they never see my stubble.’”
In September 2013, Miss Schwarz met her now-ex boyfriend via Facebook, and he accepted her for who she was, facial hair and all.
After six months, she moved 3,000 miles from Florida to Seattle to live with him, and felt like she was in a place – mentally and physically – where she could start growing her beard.
She said: “In Seattle, I was working from home, so didn’t need to shave for work. I felt like I was safe to try growing my hair.
“Seattle seemed more progressive and welcoming than Florida too.
“My ex accepted me. I even joked with him that he couldn’t grow a good beard.”
At first, Miss Schwarz feared she’d made a terrible mistake by ditching the razor.
But then, she remembered a TV show called Whisker Wars she’d seen a couple of years earlier, about people competing to grow the longest beard.
And after researching it further, she learned of a local competition for bearded ladies called Whiskerinas.
What she didn’t realise was that the competition was actually for false beards crafted from things like wool, as opposed to actual hair.
“Everyone else had made papier mache and knitted beards,” she said.
“I turned up and thought I’d have the worst beard there, but I was an instant hit. When I won, I felt like it was a sign I should carry on.”
Miss Schwarz quickly realised she could make a career out of having a beard.
At the competition, she met the Wreckless Freeks, a circus sideshow troupe.
They asked if she wanted to join their sideshow.
With no circus experience, she spent six months learning the show.
Having enjoyed singing at school, she decided to incorporate opera and burlesque into her act.
Now, she has been performing with the Wreckless Freeks for two years.
Miss Schwarz, who has since split with the boyfriend who encouraged her to stop shaving, said: “At the start friends and family feared my involvement would be degrading, or I’d be a spectacle.
“But I’m happy to show myself off.
“People are accepting and like what we do.”
Miss Schwarz told how some people seem genuinely bewildered by her appearance, even questioning her gender or trying to take sneaky photographs of her.
“At first it hurt, but I just smile at them now or stare back,” she said.
“There would be more repercussions if I did shave, now that I’m a mouthpiece for PCOS and women with beards. I’m proud of who I am.”